Long time between long balls

12-22-01, 9:55 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

It's no Hardy Boys mystery how to beat the Super Bowl champs.

"You have to throw the ball effectively to beat them. Their strength is their front seven," said Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, looking for his team's first 200-yard passing day in a month.

In its two December games, Baltimore's record-setting defense of a year ago has allowed five passes of at least 32 yards. Last week, the Ravens allowed Kordell Stewart's career 333-yard passing day. Two weeks before that, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning gave Indy a fourth- quarter lead with touchdown passes of 40 and 57 yards to force the Ravens' fourth-quarter comeback. Green Bay's Brett Favre beat them with four passes of at least 28 yards back in October and Jacksonville's Mark Brunell nearly beat them in November with 259 yards.

The bigger mystery is the Columbo job of trying to find the Bengals' down-field passing game. They haven't completed a pass of more than 19 yards this month, have just one in the last four games, and haven't had a 40-yard pass since Darnay Scott beat the Ravens for 41 the second week of the season. The wide receivers haven't caught a touchdown pass in 19 straight quarters.

Scott, the long-ball artist, is in danger of going through a season without a 50-yard catch for the first time in his career. Playmaker Peter Warrick is looking at two straight seasons without a 100-yard day. Speedster Chad Johnson, who missed four games with a broken collarbone, has yet to catch a ball for more than 20 yards. And all three have had to fight through a series of nagging to serious injuries.

Johnson, the Bengals rookie who has been known to say what his fellow receivers are thinking, showed up at practice this week with the word "Play Maker," taped to his helmet. He said that wasn't a message, but he also says he's open when he goes deep: "Keep them honest."

"It's a reminder that I have to focus and the things I have to concentrate on in practice," Johnson said of his sign.

It's just not the wide receivers, although one of the youngest groups in the league has missed some big catches. It's just not quarterback Jon Kitna, although he's thrown 10 interceptions in the six-game losing streak. It's just not the lack of tight ends, although they haven't thrown for more than 140 yards in a game since Tony McGee and Marco Battaglia were hurt.

Bratkowski is standing by Kitna: "Jon Kitna is a good enough

quarterback to make the playoffs. He has to play better, but the people surrounding him have to play better, too."

Yes, there are times Bratkowski wishes he had called longer passes more often. But he also feels the deep ball has been there, but failed for a variety of reasons.

"We had three early against Jacksonville (Dec. 10) and had some overthrows," Bratkowski said. "We had two against Tennessee (Nov. 18) and they were off the fingertips. When we had the lead in Jacksonville (Nov. 11), we could have had 25 yards or more on a seam route and (McGee) dropped it."

Reasons?

"Just that," Bratkowski said. "If it hasn't been one thing, it's been the other. Overthrows. Not making the touch catches. A breakdown in protection. Or you don't get the coverage you want, like happened against the Jets and Jon checked it down and we got 17 yards on a throw to (running back) Corey (Dillon)."

How do teams win? The Ravens have the 11th best offense in the league with virtually no running game. But wide receiver Qadry Ismail has at least one catch of 20-plus yards in all but one game.

Receivers coach Steve Mooshagian is confident his guys are on the verge of having big days. Even with the return of the eight-year Scott, the corps is still eye-shade green with five first- or second-year players.

Mooshagian has done a good job soothing and nurturing Warrick. Warrick can't believe, "I don't have a 50-yard catch and haven't had 100 yards yet (in the NFL)."

Mooshagian stresses Warrick has had just six balls of more than 20 yards thrown his way and that "he's having a better year than people think he's having."

" He needs the ball and to be involved in the game and I have to keep him from getting frustrated at times. That's just maturity and understanding. He's still a young player," Mooshagian said. "I let him voice his frustrations behind closed doors and try to let him understand you can only control what you can control. A lot of times things get taken away by coverage.

"People can say all they want about him, but he's gotten better this year with the ball in front of him and getting north and south," Mooshagian said. "For all the things he did in college, people don't see what an unselfish player he is. He would trade all the yards for wins."

But there are numbers that Warrick knows means wins. And he knows what a 9.6 yards per catch means.

"It stinks," Warrick said. "But we'll get it right."

They hope the Ravens' secondary is where it starts to go right.

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